I’m frequently an “only.” I’m often the only woman in a boardroom, speaking on a conference agenda, or attending an executive meeting. And I work in a field that’s often considered female-led: Media, PR, and advertising tend to have a higher percentage of women. Even so, at the most senior levels, women are left behind.
According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, a measly 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. Further, only 19 percent of senior management positions are held by women. Similarly, in the advertising industry, only 11 percent of creative directors are female. And the CEOs of women’s lifestyle media outlets like Bustle, Refinery29, PopSugar, and PureWow are all men. Women are underrepresented at every level in corporate America, despite obtaining more degrees, even at the doctoral level.
So why does this matter? Because if a company’s people don’t look like the society surrounding the business, how can products and services — and, by extension, their marketing — be expected to meet society’s needs? Diverse teams generate better ideas, and better ideas improve the bottom line. Similar to the insufficiency of female directors in Hollywood, our society is robbed of the ability to hear stories in advertising that accurately depict life from women’s perspective.
How a Lack of Representation Hurts Companies
This lack of representation impacts business in two ways. The first is quite simple: Stereotypes in advertising are bad for business. Compared to gender-balanced brands, male-skewed brands are valued, on average, $9 billion less. This suggests that too many brand marketers maintain an antiquated view of who buys their products, both now and in the future. This fallacy results in losing market share to brands with broader gender appeal that are liked by both men and women.
The proof is found in Kantar’s AdReaction study, “Getting Gender Right,” which recently discovered that females are over-targeted in categories like laundry and household products and under-targeted in areas like automotive. Being “progressive” these days can be as easy as challenging outdated assumptions that only women buy laundry detergent and dish soap.
Change is happening, but not fast enough. In our research at Exverus Media, alongside Nielsen AdIntel, we found that several traditionally female-targeted brands like Huggies, Pampers, Kotex, Tampax, and Tide have all recently begun shifting their media mix, perhaps realizing that men buy diapers and women watch sports. Advertising investments for these products on ESPN increased by more than 32 times over the past 10 years, even when accounting for inflation.
On the flip side, businesses can be positively impacted by ensuring gender equality, first on their boards and subsequently in their media and messaging. The brands that most quickly disrupt the status quo will have the most to gain: Valuation growth of disrupter brands is 165 percent higher than incumbent brands, according to Kantar.
How Brands Can — and Should — Adapt
With the rise of online-based direct-to-consumer brands like Glossier, Birchbox, Stitch Fix, and ThirdLove — all women-founded — the traditional thinking by old-school male-led brands is being shaken up. These D2C brands cater to the explicit needs and desires of their target audience — women — and, therefore, deliver a superior experience to those women while old-guard brands are flat or in decline.
In response, we’re starting to see incumbent brands employ female directors like Kim Gehrig, who took on the recent controversial Gillette ad. The ad’s anti-toxic masculinity TV spot delivered “unprecedented levels of both media coverage and consumer engagement,” according to P&G CFO Jon Moeller.
“Only” women aren’t waiting around for change — it’s happening now. One example can be found in an organization called WIMMIES (Women in Media), a 501(c)(6) nonprofit networking group for women in the Los Angeles area working in digital media. “Wimmies’ mission is to empower women to ascend the ranks in the media and marketing industries. We do this through networking and educational events. We’ve all heard the oft-referenced quote, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ As a woman, you have to cover both,” says Amy Halvorsen, Wimmies co-founder and digital account executive at Disney Interactive.
She goes on to explain, “Women drive the world economy, and it’s a financial miss to exclude their voices. In this era…it’s risky for media companies and brands not to include women at the highest echelons.”
Other organizations dedicated to increasing women’s visibility in executive roles include She Runs It and The Female Quotient, which hosts women-inclusive embedded series at events ranging from Cannes to SXSW. By expanding the number of women who have decision-making power and influence over the advertising produced, women are far less likely to be marginalized within ads themselves.
It’s a strong call to action, not only for women in the marketing industry, but also across the country. When women’s voices aren’t being heard — whether it’s in meetings or in the media — we need to take it upon ourselves to seek them out. It’s not just about leaving money on the table; it’s also about our responsibility to each other and our shared future.